Sunday, May 31, 2009

Separated At Birth: Susan Boyle and Crazy Guggenheim?

I was in London for a few days, just in time to catch the British press turning on poor Susan Boyle, who was dubbed the Hairy Angel.

Boyle, it seems, lost her carefully propped-up composure in the last week, on several occasions shouting obscenities in public.

A story in today's New York Times about Boyle losing the finale of a British TV amateur talent show last night mentions the essential cruelty of the program and quotes a British psychologist who has worked for reality TV: "The more tears, humiliation, conflict and embarrassment, the more the public loves it."

Thank God that sorry spectacle is over.

(UPDATE, 10 PM: Unfortunately, it seems, the spectacle is not over. Boyle is now in a psychiatric clinic, according to British news reports tonight.)

How did it become dogma that this sadly deluded woman has a beautiful voice? In fact, though she has a passable karaoke singing talent (after the fourth round of drinks, let's say), she is decidedly off-key singing those execrable show-tune anthems.

Still, was I the only one who saw at least some connection between Boyle and that buggy character Crazy Guggenheim on the old Jackie Gleason TV show from the 50s and early 60s? Crazy Guggenheim would turn up at the bar in the weekly "Joe the Bartender" skit, and after baffling and infuriating Gleason's Joe the Bartender with goofy, inane banter, Crazy (played by Frank Fontaine) would then sing a ballad, and sing it beautifully.

Only differences are: Frank Fontaine was a professional entertainer, in on the joke; he had a fine baritone voice and he hit the notes. Susan Boyle hit the clams, and how has hit the bricks, having served a TV program's vile and cynical purposes, poor soul.

More observations from London a bit later.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Brazil Ups the Charges Against U.S. Pilots in Midair Collision

As I have long predicted they would, the Brazilian prosecutors have added extra charges to those already filed against the two American pilots of a business jet involved in a midair collision over the Amazon that killed 154 on a Brazilian commercial 737 airline on Sept. 29, 2006.

The business jet, an Embraer Legacy 600, was flying at 37,000 feet over the central Amazon, bound for Manaus, when the collision occurred. The National Transportation Safety Board, in opposition to an "investigation" by the Brazilian Air Force that primarily blamed the American pilots, found that the accident was primarily caused by Brazilian air traffic control (which is run by the Brazilian Air Force, which did the "investigation"). The Legacy -- on which I was one of five passengers -- had been assigned to fly at 37,000 feet by air traffic control. Another factor was faulty Brazilian air traffic control communications over the Amazon.

Contributing to the collision was the malfunction of a piece of avionics equipment called the transponder, which unaccountably failed to trigget the collision-avoidance alarm that would have been the last possible chance to avoid an accident already firmly set in place with two airplanes approaching each other at 500 miles an hour each.

Brazilian authorities, ignoring a basic precaution in aircraft accident investigation protocols, immediately criminalized the accident before investigating the causes fully. The pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, spent two months detained in Brazil until a judge, acting against the wishes of the Air Force and the federal prosecutors determined to scapegoat the Americans and hold them in Brazil indefinitely, ordered them released in December 2006.

For over a year, they have been on trial in absentia in Brazil on criminal charges of unintentionally causing the accident. The U.S. treaty with Brazil on criminal prosecutions does not require extradition on those charges. I'm traveling now, and out of touch with my usual sources for the day, but my fear is that this latest move is a ploy to goose up the charges and meet the terms of the treaty, presuring for extradition.

Attention pilots who fly Brazilian skies. Attention pilots unions. This is serious stuff.

More later.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

JetAmerica Baggage ...

One example of why we crucially need aggressive local journalism -- these kinds of stories wouldn't get done otherwise. Here's a Columbus Dispatch report on excess baggage at the sketchy new charter-hybrid airline startup JetAmerica.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Charters Will Fill In Air Service Gaps

I wouldn't make too much out of the announcement that a small start-up with one leased 737 plans to fly rounds among Newark, several Midwest cities and Vero Beach, Florida -- except that I think it represents what we will see as a trend.

A company called JetAmerica will announce today that it plans to start flying in July, with very low prices on some seats (like the defunct Skybus, which is in its lineage) and low prices on others. The company starts off with a single leased 737-800.

Here's some background from the St. Petersburg Times newspaper today. Though it's lacking in context about the niche that is so obviously open.

JetAmerica also starts off to razzing from the sidelines, primarily because of its Skybus connection, and more pointedly because of its shaky genesis. Originally, it seems, the company planned on using the name Air Azul and dropped it. The usual suspects said it was because JetBlue would sue over trademark infringement (Azul=-blue?), but it's pretty obvious to me that Air Azul in fact sounds like something that might be based somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. Duh.

Besides the Skybus connection (JetAmerica's chief executive officer, John Weikle, was the Skybus founder, though he left Skybus shortly after it started up), there is a connection to a very interesting niche in charter air travel -- supplying lift to areas with casinos that are underserved (or have been abandoned) by commercial carriers. The JetAmerica founder is Steven Schoen, an airline dilettante (and I use the word not necessarily in its negative sense) who used to run a company that flew charter flights between the Tampa Bay area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast casino towns.

I've been long predicting that as commercial airlines abandon or greatly reduce service to come cities, charter start-ups will appear to fill in gaps. My hunch is that they will be modeled more along the hybrid-charter lines of the sidelined air-taxi business, though on longer routes with bigger planes than the very-light jets the air-taxi model hoped to use.

Casino charter link? Hmmm, which big city with a lot of casinos is languishing partly because commercial carriers -- culling cheap-fare routes -- have cut 20 percent of its air service? That would be Las Vegas.

I'd watch this trend carefully. JetAmerica might go nowhere, but there are a lot of perfectly good used airplanes on the market right now, including many parked in the desert waiting for some dreamer to come along and kick the tires.

And air travel has always attracted dreamers. Sometimes, like the well-financed JetBlue in 1999, they actually pull off the seemingly impossible.

So I say good luck to JetAmerica. The charter hybrid model may well be about to redefine a segment of the air travel market. Let there be more competition. Just hope they all have deep pockets and understand that they're going to get roughed up by what remains of the competition on whichever markets they choose.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Just Asking...

Always trust British newspapers to be amusing in their invincible awe concerning wealth. Here's the Daily Mail, via Huffington Post, all breathless over what it claims is the world's most expensive hotel. But I've seen plenty of fancier hotels around the world. Actually, the fanciest ones tend to be a bit more ... subdued.

And a $17,000-a-night suite is not unusual. That's around what the presidential suite in the very top international hotels costs. What they don't tell gullible reporters is that if you spend $17,000 on the top suite, they usually throw in a bunch of free rooms for your entourage.

But one question about this joint in Turkey: What the hell is a "remote controlled toilet?" How does it work, exactly?


Southwest Flash Fare Sale

As has been the case since early winter, airlines are continuing to pump out flash fare sales, meaning promotions that you have to grab fairly quickly. It's an indication of the pressing need all U.S. carriers have to raise revenue in a very tough time.

Southwest has a major sale starting today, for travel through Oct. 29, with a 14-day advance purchase. Tickets need to be bought by 11:59 p.m. Pacific time on Thursday.

Some samples from a long list: Washington-Tampa ($81); Tucson-New York ($180); Austin-Boston ($151); Boston-Los Angeles ($159).

The prices are for one-way travel but, of course, Southwest alone among the big carriers is very happy to sell you a one-way ticket even at a fare-sale price, without insisting that you buy a round-trip.


Your Papers, Please (II)

Continuing the long-running goatf--- of confusion and red tape that is our federal "border security" system, here's a heads-up on new requirements for identification papers you will need when returning by land or sea from a trip to either Canada or Mexico, or by sea from the Caribbean or Bermuda, effective next Monday, June 1.

That's the day a program called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative goes into effect. Starting June 1, only a passport or five other forms of officially approved I.D. will be accepted for return to the U.S.

The passport is self-evident. But what are these "five other forms" of I.D. that the media have mentioned without going to the trouble of specifying them? Here are three. I'm looking for the rest.

--U.S. Passport Card – This is a new, limited-use travel document that fits in your wallet and costs less than a U.S. Passport. It is only valid for travel by land and sea. Frankly, I don't see why anyone would go to the trouble of getting this thing instead of an actual passport.

--Enhanced Driver’s License – Several states and Canadian provinces or territories are issuing this driver’s license or I.D., specifically designed for cross-border travel into the U.S. by land or sea. A trip to the motor vehicles department is required. Say no more.

--Trusted Traveler Program cards – NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST enrollment cards are issued only to pre-approved travelers who are deemed to be low-risk by whatever half-baked criteria the authorities use. The cards are valid for use at land or sea; the NEXUS card can be used in airports with a NEXUS kiosk.

Oh, and you're bringing a kid back with you? U.S. and Canadian citizens under age 16 arriving by land or sea from contiguous territory may also present an original or a copy of the kid's birth certificate (all parents carry that, right?), a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Naturalization Certificate, or a Canadian Citizenship Card.

Oh, and here's a twist. Religious groups are among those who get special consideration. Not that we've ever had to worry about, um, religious groups and security.

From the Customs and Border Patrol statement:

"Beginning June 1, 2009, U.S. and Canadian citizen children under age 19 arriving by land or sea from contiguous territory and traveling with a school group, religious group, social or cultural organization, or sports team, may also present an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Naturalization Certificate, or a Canadian Citizenship Card.

The group should be prepared to present a letter on organizational letterhead with the following information:

* The name of the group and supervising adult;
* A list of the children on the trip, and the primary address, phone number, date of birth, place of birth, and name of at least one parent or legal guardian for each child; and
* A written and signed statement of the supervising adult certifying that he or she has obtained parental or legal guardian consent for each participating child.

Letterhead and a signed statement! No way that can be forged.


Russia's S7 Airlines Joining oneworld

Russia's S7 Airlines expects to join the oneworld alliance next year, raising oneworld's membership to 11.

S7 is Russia's leading airline in domestic traffic. S7 would add 54 cities to the oneworld network, 35 of them in Russia, and bring eight countries into the alliance: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

It will take about 18 months to integrate S7 into the alliance. The Russian carrier's membership sponsor is British Airways.

The alliance members are American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, JAL, LAN, Malev, Qantas and Royal Jordanian.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

King Air 350 Crashes in Brazil, Killing 14

From our correspondent Richard Pedicini in Brazil:


A twin-engine King Air 350 went down last night on approach to a luxury condominium's airfield in the fashionable resort area of Trancoso, Bahia, in northeast Brazil, with the deaths of all aboard, which may be as many as 15. The plane crashed and exploded at 9:13 p.m. during heavy rain in a hilly area 500 feet from the runway, which isn't equipped for instrument landings. The pilot was experienced and the plane had recently passed its annual inspection.

Among the dead are the plane's owner, investment banker Richard Ian Wright - formerly on the board of Credit Suisse First Boston Garantia - his wife and two children. His first wife was among the 99 dead in a 1996 TAM crash in São Paulo.

The exact number of victims is still uncertain due to the fire, which took firefighters two hours to control. The plane's capacity is two pilots and ten passengers; four of those aboard were children.

The Terravista Condomium is alongside a Club Med, and about 20 kilometers from the resort city of Porto Seguro and its larger airport, but can only be reached by a ferry and a dirt road.

(UPDATE: The AP is quoting Brazilian media saying that 11 people died in the crash. "Officials with Brazil's civil aviation authority and the nation's Air Force that investigates crashes did not answer telephone calls seeking comment." the AP reports.}

{UPDATE #2: Reuters, which is more reliable than the AP, has the number of dead at 14. Here's the Reuters story.}


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gloom by the Room: Hotel Industry Declines Continue

Anyone looking for a sign that the travel slump has bottomed out won't find evidence in the domestic hotel business.

The U.S. hotel industry posted declines in all three key performance measurements during the week of ending May 16, according to Smith Travel Research. As has been the case since last fall, luxury hotels had the worst performance.

Compared with corresponding week in 2008, occupancy for all hotel segments fell 12.6 percent; average daily rates fell 10 percent and the key metric, revenue per available room, fell 21.4 percent.

Smith said that none of the top 25 markets showed increases in any of the three performance metrics. Atlanta posted an 18.8-percent decline in occupancy, the largest of any market. The smallest occupancy decrease was recorded by Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (-5.4 percent to 79.4 percent).

Two cities experienced average room rate declines of more than 20 percent: New York, down 31.6 percent and San Francisco/San Mateo, down -22.8 percent.

Continuing a plunge from the fat times of recent years, New York reported the largest decrease in revenue per available room -- down 39.4 percent.

Among the seven chain-scale segments, the Midscale with Food and Beverage segment posted the largest drop in occupancy (-14.6 percent). The Luxury segment led the performance declines in the remaining two performance measurements. It experienced a 20.1-percent average daily rate decline to $237.05, and a 31.3-percent fall in revenue per available room, to $150.40, Smith said.


Motorists' Group: 'Watch Your Wallet' in These 10 States

Lots of people will be driving on holidays this weekend, and the National Motorists
Association, a group that opposes revenue-generating speed traps and intersection traffic surveillance cameras, issued a report on the best and the worst states
"when it comes to exploiting the motoring public," the group said.

This is also useful for business travelers who rent cars, and sometimes are astonished to find a surreptitiously issued traffic ticket in the mail weeks later, giving them little recourse but to pay.

Here are the worst ten states:

1) New Jersey
2) Ohio
3) Maryland
4) Louisiana
5) New York
6) Illinois
7) Delaware
8) Virginia
9) Washington
10) Massachusetts

The National Motorists Association says the state rankings were calculated using seventeen criteria related to specific traffic laws, enforcement practices, and the
treatment of traffic ticket defendants. The rankings are designed to provide guidance to travelers who do not want their vacation ruined by speed traps, arcane laws or "kangaroo" traffic courts.

The group's statement said:

"The state most likely to find its way into your wallet is New Jersey. With its toll roads, roadblocks, and speed traps, New Jersey has left almost no stone unturned when it comes to extracting cash from motorists. The state has also recently pushed through a red-light camera pilot project at a time when many states are banning the ticket cameras because they've proven to have a negative effect on traffic safety. Add in "driver responsibility" fees, which are ineffective and have a disproportionate effect on the poor, and you have the worst state in our rankings.

"On the opposite end of the spectrum, the five states that treated motorists most fairly are Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Kentucky. The complete list of rankings can be found on the National Motorists Association website at

"Jim Baxter, President of the National Motorists Association, said '"It is not exactly a well kept secret that many traffic laws, enforcement practices, and traffic courts are more about generating revenue and political posturing, than they are about traffic safety. During holidays, like the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, we're bombarded with messages about intensified enforcement, _click it or ticket,' and horrendous fines when in fact most vacation-related traffic accidents are caused my inattention, distraction and fatigue. However, these are accident causes that don't generate much in the way of government revenue, so instead our highways are overrun with unmarked police cars and ticket cameras.'

"Baxter added, 'The long term solution to aligning legitimate public interests with government policies is to remove the money from traffic regulation, enforcement, and adjudication. Until that happens, the focus on revenue generation will continue to trump effective traffic regulation and ethical enforcement practices.'"

The group maintains a during the holiday may want to check out the NMA's National Speed Trap Exchange - a listing of speed traps across the country - at


AirTran's Approach to Business Class

AirTran Airways is running an interesting sale on business-class seats, by way of underscoring its unconventional approach to selling the front of the plane. Tickets must be purchased by the end of today, however, for travel through June 23. Round-trip purchases are not required, though a seven-day advance purchase is. Seats are limited.

Some sample one-way business-class fares: Atlanta-Boston ($149); Atlanta-Chicago ($159); Atlanta-Houston Hobby ($159); Atlanta-Los Angeles ($269); Milwaukee-Boston ($144); Milwaukee-Seattle ($249).

Last week, during a demonstration flight to show off AirTran's new Wi-Fi system, Bob Fornaro, the chief executive officer, told me that the business-class cabin and pricing strategies were central to AirTran's evolution in recent years from a strictly leisure carrier to one with a growing business-travel clientèle.

AirTran now lets you chose to pay extra at check-in, 24 hours in advance, to upgrade to the front of the cabin on its Boeing 737s and 717s. Depending on availability, it costs about $49 to upgrade from a Y fare on a short-haul flight, and $99 on a long-haul.

Obviously, promoting for-sale upgrades (and running business-class fare sales) brings into question the balance between selling seats up front and awarding them to elite-status customers. Fornaro said that so far, he thinks the airline has been able to maintain a balance.

[AirTran elite-status members: Please let me know if you disagree with that.]

"Business class has been our most important feature and has allowed us to transition from a completely leisure airline to an airline that is competing in both segments of the market now," he said.

"When I joined the company in 1999 we looked at it and said, is this something we should be doing? The company launched in late 1997. We gave it a trial, at a time when a a lot of or even most companies were not allowing people to buy business class, or first class."

So the buy-on-demand feature was introduced, coded to a coach fare. "It’s helped us at the beginning trial; we got the load factors us, and it's been a good entrée for us to break into corporate sales. It allowed us to bring something different to the party," Fornaro said.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Without Portfolio: Is Revived

Conde Nast's Portfolio magazine shut down last month after two years, and its lively Web site, went dark, and took with it a lot of good business travel reporting, including Joe Brancatelli's column, Seat 2B.

But while the print magazine is still dead, -- which offered original content as well as the magazine's features -- is being revived by Advance Publications, the company that owns Conde Nast. It comes back to life in July, under the aegis of Advance's American City Business Journals, which publishes regional business journals.


Winner of Race to Wi-Fi Every Flight:: Virgin America

I love it. It's almost as if some fun has returned to the airline business, which badly needs some.

Last week, AirTran cleverly surprised Delta by announcing that it, AirTran, would be the first to have its whole fleet outfitted with Wi-Fi. By mid-summer, AirTran said, all of its 86 Boeing 717s and 50 Boeing 737s would have the Aircell Gogo Wi-Fi service on board.

That move pulled AirTran ahead of the morning favorite, Delta, which has been busily converting all 300 of its mainline domestic planes to Aircell's Wi-Fi system. A day before AirTran's surprise announcement, Delta evidently got wind of it and hastily put out an announcement saying that it had already converted half of its mainline domestic fleet, and would have all of the fleet converted by September.

And then on the outside here comes scrappy Virgin American today -- and Virgin is the winnah! Virgin America says it now offers Aircell Wi-Fi on every one of its 100 daily flights.

(Okay, Virgin has only 26 planes flying in its fleet (A320s and A319s), but fair is fair. They win the race.)

By the way, Virgin offers a plus: power outlets available for every seat, including in coach. Without power outlets, Wi-Fi users are limited by the life of their batteries.

The Gogo service on Virgin costs $12.95 for daytime flights of over three hours, $9.95 for daytime flights of less than three hours, $5.95 on red-eye flights and $7.95 for handheld devices.

Aircell is busily converting planes at locations all over the country, often working all-night shifts to do so. By the end of this year, Aircell expects to have 1,000 domestic airliners, from various airlines, equipped with WiFi.


Airline Revenue Keeps Plunging

We'll see if all of those flash fare sales finally work to help airlines start climbing out of the deep revenue hole this summer. So far this spring, the sales haven't counted for much in terms of cash raised.

Passenger revenue for U.S. airlines fell 18 percent in April compared with April 2008, the Air Transport Association says.

Compare that against the decline in the number of passengers (6.3 percent) and the 12.6 percent decline in a key metric, the cost of flying a passenger one mile (the decline is due to lower oil prices), and you see that the fare sales may have maintained some volume, but without ginning up enough cash.

The fare sales are continuing -- but soon, something's got to give.


Monday, May 18, 2009

British Airways to Add Las Vegas Route

The international travel game got a little more intense this morning when British Airways announced that it will start a new nonstop daily flight between Las Vegas and London Heathrow on Oct. 25.

The flights will be operated to and from Heathrow’s Terminal 5 by a three-class Boeing 777 offering Club World (business class), World Traveller Plus (premium economy) and World Traveller (economy). The Club World cabin offers seats that convert to 180-degree flat beds. (Missing from the mix is British Airways first-class cabin.)

Las Vegas will be British Airways’ 19th city in the United States.

This seems counter-intuitive, since U.S. airlines have been busily removing capacity from Las Vegas, which has been struggling with a sharp fall-off in tourism and business travel. Air service is off about 20 percent into and out of Las Vegas in the last 12 months.

But never short Las Vegas. If any city is going to market its way out of a slump, this one will. Foreign carriers like British Airways are not allowed to fly between U.S. cities, but many of the big ones have been steadily increasing the number of cities they serve in the U.S. from international locations, while firmly establishing their brands in the domestic market.

Big domestic airlines are warily evaluating the U.S. strategies of British Airways, Lufthansa and other sharp foreign competitors (including Air France-KLM and Virgin Atlantic). In some cases, of course, the domestic airlines are forging deeper alliance partnerships with foreign carriers (while working to manipulate around U.S. anti-trust regulations.)

Interesting to see one of them making a bet on Las Vegas.

According to British Airways:

The 777 on the new Las Vegas route will be configured with 36 Club World seats, 24 World Traveller Plus seats and 214 World Traveller seats.

The daily eastbound flight, BA274, will depart McCarran International Airport’s Terminal 2 at 7 p.m. and arrive at London Heathrow Airport at 12:50 p.m. the following day. The westbound flight, BA275, will depart Terminal 5, Heathrow, at 2:20 p.m. and arrive at Las Vegas at 5:10 p.m. the same afternoon.

Roundtrip fares in World Traveller will start at $461 and for World Traveller Plus, $1206. Roundtrip Club World fares will start at $3,255; all fares are subject to fuel surcharges, government fees and taxes.


International Premium Traffic Plunges Further; Airlines Wonder, Where's the Bottom?

I was just chuckling over a quote in a story in this morning's paper from Jeff Zucker, the boss at the NBC network. It reads: "Although 'we have have seen the bottom,' he said, 'we don't see an uptick.'"

I couldn't help wondering: Isn't that arguably another way to say, "We may be sunk."?

Anyway, here comes the International Air Transport Association this morning with some very bad news for the airline industry (which of course is already well aware of the implications, since they've already counted the money): International premium-class traffic, which has been falling for at least six months, fell even more sharply in March, when 19 percent fewer passengers bought business-class or first-class tickets on international routes (as compared with March 2008).

Here's the Reuters story out of Geneva. Oddly, IATA adheres to the self-defeating habit of releasing news abroad first, rather than simply posting it on its Web site so we Americans can see it at the same time it gets disseminated to the Continent.

"We have not reached a floor to the fall in air travel," IATA said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

As international premium traffic plunges, airlines have been running big fare sales on overseas business-class and first-class seats. So while the gross decline in the number of premium-fare passengers is stark, the decline in revenue from those cabins -- now being sold off at half price and less in many cases -- is even more stark. IATA estimates that premium-class revenues were down 35 to 40 percent in the first-quarter, according to Reuters.

In recent years, major U.S. airlines made big bets on a future of robust international premium-class traffic, renovating front-of-the-plane long-haul cabins and shifting capacity from domestic to overseas flying.

My own guess is that in time, given inexorable global travel demand patterns, this important segment of the market will recover, and probably even to a greater extent than domestic traffic, which may settle in permanently at a 15 percent capacity reduction.

But I seriously doubt that the days of $11,000 business-class fares (even at half off for major corporate discounts) will return any time soon.

Airlines that made those big bets on overseas premium seats know they have to buckle up, as it's going to be a bumpy ride.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Your Papers, Please ...

In case you haven't heard, the still-leaderless Transportation Security Administration sprung into place on Friday the initial phase of a requirement that the name on your airline boarding pass will need to exactly match the name on the government-issued I.D. you present at the checkpoint.

Exactly as in e-x-a-c-t-l-y.

Right now, the TSA is merely requesting that you do this, to help get the ball rolling on the new Secure Flight program, which is an initiative to try to straighten out the mess created by airline mis-administration of the terrorist watch lists at checkpoints. If your documents have only small differences, like a missing middle initial on one, you won't be keelhauled ... for now.

The requirement will be key to the smooth operation of the Secure Flight program now being phased in by the airlines and the TSA.

My head hurts every time I try to explain Secure Flight and the terrorist watch lists.

If you want your head to hurt, too, please see my May 7 post "Terror Watch List: Free Jack Anderson! All of Them!" for a detailed backgrounder on the whole mess of watch-list enforcement and chronic problem of innocent travelers being constantly detained for extra questioning because they have names that may be the same as or similar to, or a variant of, names on the actual, secret terrorist lists. Even if those names on the actual lists are clearly not of terrorists, but of persons who seem to be there because a long time ago those persons frightened Richard Milhouse Nixon or the easily alarmed J. Edgar Hoover.

Don't get me started.

Basically, under Secure Flight, the boarding pass and I.D. will have to match precisely once this becomes Official. For example, both must say Richard Milhouse Nixon (not "Dick" Nixon on one) or "J. Edgar Hoover" (not "Jane" or "John" Edgar Hoover.)

Anyway, here is the T.S.A. announcement:

"WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced today that beginning May 15 the Secure Flight passenger vetting program will begin asking passengers to enter their full name – as it appears on the government issued identification they will be traveling with – when making airline reservations.

This is the first publicly noticeable step in implementing the multi-phase Secure Flight program which shifts pre-departure watch list matching responsibilities from individual aircraft operators to TSA. The Secure Flight program satisfies a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, and congressional requirements from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and the 9/11 Commission Act signed into law in 2007.

'By enhancing and streamlining the watch list matching process, the Secure Flight program makes travel safer and easier for millions of Americans,' said TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides. 'During this phase of the Secure Flight program, passengers are encouraged to book their reservations using their name as it appears on the government-issued ID they will use while traveling.'

In the near future, small differences between the passenger's ID and the passenger's reservation information, such as the use of a middle initial instead of a full middle name or no middle name/initial at all, will not be an issue for passengers. Over time, passengers should strive to obtain consistency between the name on their government issued ID and the travel information they use for booking flights.

The second phase of Secure Flight begins August 15, 2009 when passengers will be required to enter their date of birth and gender when booking airline flights.

Once Secure Flight's advanced technology is fully implemented in early 2010, enhanced watch list matching will be done by the government. Airlines will gather a passenger's full name, date of birth, and gender when making an airline reservation to determine if the passenger is a match to the No Fly or Selectee lists. By providing the additional data elements of gender and date of birth, Secure Flight will more effectively help prevent misidentification of passengers who have similar names to individuals on the watch list and better identify individuals that may pose a known or suspected threat to aviation.

TSA's goal is to vet 100 percent of passengers on all domestic commercial flights by early 2010 and 100 percent of passengers on all international commercial flights by the end of 2010."


The WHO and the Flu, Part II

Did the World Health Organization overreact to the outbreak of the flu formerly known as swine flu, to the point of panic, in cranking up the flu-threat level to one notch below Defcon 1?

My post here Friday had a brief look at that, based on the evidence that the H1N1 virus, while spreading, seems to be associated with a fairly mild strain of flu.


But there's a letter worth reading in the Times this morning. It's from a physician associated with the conservative Hoover Institution. He says the WHO response seems to have been "alarmist" and driven by "excessive risk-aversion" predicated on experiences during (and possibly fallout after) the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in Asia.


Friday, May 15, 2009

The WHO and the Flu

[Above: The WHO pandemic alert chart]

Did the World Health Organization overreact when it cranked up the worldwide H1N1 flu alert to phase 5, the stage right before declaration of a worldwide pandemic?

This article today in Slate suggests that it did, saying that the WHO engaged in "scary speculation" over an outbreak of what, so far, appears to be a mild strain of flu. But this story isn't over yet, and the flu continues to spread.

The WHO is starting to sound a bit defensive on the subject, saying that the H1N1 strain formerly known as swine flu "appears to be more contagious than seasonal influenza."

Here's the latest WHO update on the flu.

The number of cases jumped in the last day. See this from the Raw Story.


Summer Air-Travel Demand Down; Expect Full Planes and Delays. Huh?

Fewer people will be flying this summer, despite those frantic fare sales all winter and spring. Planes will be more crowded. Expect delays to start growing again after a lull all year.

Say what?

In its summer travel forecast, the Air Transport Association said today that 14 million fewer passengers will board U.S. airlines this summer. The total drop (domestic and international) will be between 6 and 7 percent, the airline trade group said.

Passenger traffic has been down far more than 7 percent so far this year, so a summer drop of a mere 7 percent actually reflects an improvement generated by all of those fare sales, it seems to me. (The summer period as defined by the airline trade group in its year-to-year comparison is June 1 through August 31.}

Approximately 195 million passengers are expected to fly this summer on U.S. airlines, down from 209 million during the summer months of 2008. The ATA projects that 7 percent fewer passengers (171 million versus 183 million) will travel domestically, and 6 percent fewer passengers (24 million versus 26 million) will travel internationally.

Airline data for the first quarter show that load factors -- the percentage of seats filled with customers -- are well into the 80 percent levels, meaning most domestic flights are taking off full. That's because airlines evidently have had some success in reducing capacity -- by dropping flights and removing planes from their fleets -- in response to the decline in demand.

The ATA president, James C. May, said the poor economy is the main reason for the decline.

"The weak economy has forced additional aircraft out of the marketplace, so despite fewer travelers, planes will remain near full," May said. He used the occasion to take a well-aimed shot (again) at our sagging, lagging air-traffic control system. "We remain concerned that delays may be inevitable due to the combination of an aging air traffic control system and convective weather period," he said. [My comment: "Convective weather" meaning the summer thunderstorms, etc., that the airlines like to blame for everything that goes wrong.}


4 Young Americans Murdered in Tijuana as Horrific Violence Escalates -- My Advice: Avoid Mexican Border Towns

[Above: This is how brazen the drug gangs are in Mexican border areas with the U.S. That's a roadside shrine to the drug trade's patron saint, one Jesus Malverde. I took the photo in late November in the hills outside Ensenada, Mexico. At left is Serge Dedina, the executive director of the coastal environmental group Wildcoast, with Saul Alarcon, the conservation manager.]


From the AP, via this morning: "The bound, beaten, strangled, and stabbed bodies of four young Americans have been found in a van in Tijuana, AP reports. The two men and two women left their homes in the San Diego and Chula Vista areas last week to visit Mexican nightclubs."

Here's the link to the report.

Later in the day today, the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper posted this far more detailed account. It suggests that the victims were in the habit of going to Tijuana to "party," and that at least one may have had some criminal connections.

Whatever, the dangers in these border towns, where innocent people have been killed in shootouts, have become unacceptable for travel, especially at night. People who travel south of the border to "party" need to understand that, for now, the party is over.

Here's more horrific recent news out of Tijuana.

That's it for me. I need no more evidence. I am going to avoid all of the Mexican border towns for the foreseeable future, and I urge you to do the same. Adios Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Juarez, Matamoros and all the rest.

The Mexican tourism authorities in those stricken cities have been desperately urging Americans to return, insisting that reports of unending bloody violence (6,000 murders in a year) are exaggerated.

Baloney. My friends at Wildcoast, which is based in San Diego with offices in Baja, described for me on a road trip through northern Baja late last November the sort of extraordinary precautions they need to take to avoid hijackings, robberies, kidnapings and worse as they go about their work on the Baja coast.

On that trip, I was stunned by the deserted look of the downtown streets of Tijuana and Ensenada -- usually thronged with American tourists.

I have a home in southern Arizona, and my wife and often visited Nogales on day trips with friends, sometimes just to have lunch.

No more. That's it. It is simply too damned dangerous to visit the Mexican border towns. Avoid them.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blaming the Dead Tired Pilots for Colgan Air Buffalo Crash

As has been apparent almost since day one, pilot error caused the Feb. 12 crash near Buffalo of a Continental Airlines flight operated by Colgan Air, in which 50 people died. Hearings this week by the National Transportation Safety Board are making that even more clear.

But there are other basic and extremely troublesome issues, long known in the industry and now being threaded out more fully at the ongoing N.T.S.B. hearings. Those industry-wide issues are chronic pilot fatigue, low pilot pay, inadequate pilot training and poor resume-checking by some regional airlines, all of which are under terrific cost-cutting pressure from the major airlines who use the regionals as subcontractors.

At today's hearing (which was Webcast by the N.T.S.B.), Colgan Air executives were asked about many of those issues. Their answers are enlightening, to the extent that one can drill down through the palaver.

The basic ugly truth -- long known by regional airline pilots and by those of us who follow these things -- is that many regional airline pilots work in a culture of chronic fatigue, in a sub-tier of the air-travel industry where captains might make $50,000 a year and first officers might make less than $20,000, and that the official FAA-sanctioned duty-time regulations that supposedly ensure that pilots have enough time to sleep (7 hours, which of course includes the time to get from airport to hotel and back) are a national scandal.

The feckless FAA -- which incidentally has been operating without a director for almost two years -- is complicit in the grim fiction that safety standards are just fine, evidence aside. The N.T.S.B., to its credit, is digging out the ugly reality, case by case, question by question.

Colgan, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines, supplies regional-airline service to Continental and other airlines. The flight that crashed on approach to Buffalo was Continental Flight 3407 from Newark, operated by Colgan on a 70-seat Dash 8- Q400 commuter turboprop with 49 aboard. (One of the fatalities was in the house the plane crashed into near the airport.}

In the cockpit were Captain Marvin D. Renslow, 47, and First Officer Rebecca Shaw, 24. Renslow had slight experience in the Dash 8 Q400; Shaw had more, but had been on the job for only a little over a year. Shaw's base salary was about $16,000 a year (it could have gone up to around $24,000 with overtime), and Renslow was making around $60,000. To save money, Shaw had recently moved in with her parents near Seattle, necessitating her cross-country commute to work.

It's now known that the plane crashed, in icy, blustery weather, when the captain pulled back on the yoke, rather than pushing it forward, to make a crucial correction, a mistake that sent the plane into a fatal stall. It's now known that Renslow and Shaw were engaged in idle chatter at the time of the accident, a violation of rules that ban chit-chat in the cockpit during takeoff and landing procedures, below 10,000 feet.

The pilots, the 47 passengers and the victim on the ground paid for those mistakes with their lives.

But what about the underlying culture? What about the problems of operating airlines with badly paid, sometimes inadequately trained pilots who are so overworked that they catch sleep in empty jump seats or crawl up to grab a few hours sleep on a couch or chair in airport crew-lounges? (I've even heard from regional pilots who said they know colleagues who have crawled into a row of coach seats on a parked regional airliner at an airport to snatch a few hours of sleep).

At today's hearings, Colgan officials maintained that the fault lay with the two dead pilots. Period.

Rather than characterize or paraphrase their testimony, I'll give you some direct-quote examples from this morning's hearing.

The Colgan executives giving testimony were Harry Mitchel, Colgan's vice president for flight operations, and Mary Finnigan, the vice president of administration (meaning, she's the human-resources lady.)

Colgan, incidentally, has in recent years closed about 10 of its regional crew bases, which now number 20 at locations around the country, with the result that many pilots are now commuting (via free hops on airplanes) long distances to reach the airport where they the clock then starts ticking for their official workday. Also, the word "commuting" describes pilots who need to get to one airport to start a new shift from the airport where their previous flight ended. Shaw was based in Newark but had recently moved back to her native Washington state.


N.T.S.B member Debbie Hersman asked the two Colgan executives what the average salary was for a captain and a first officer.

Colgan's Finnigan said, "It really depends on how many hours they fly."

HERSMAN: "OK, but it sounded like in this case for the first officer [the 24-year-old Rebecca Shaw] it was in the $16,000 range. Is that accurate?"

FINNIGAN: "That would be accurate."


HERSMAN: "How many Colgan pilots have second jobs?"

FINNIGAN: "I don't know."

H: "Does Colgan have a policy against pilots having second jobs?"

F: "Our policy states that we discourage anyone in the company having a second job; however if for a pilot, if they do, or a flight attendant, it can't be in the aviation field that would affect their time and duty."

H: "Were you aware that the first officer worked in a coffee shop when she was in Norfolk?" [Before transferring to the Newark crew base, Shaw had been assigned to the Colgan base in Norfolk.]

F: "No, m'am. I was not."

H: "Do you have any concerns about people working second jobs?"

F: "I believe that our policy says that they need to give their full-time attention to their duties and responsibilities with Colgan Air, so i really can't speculate because i don't know the kind of hours she worked, or any of the details."

After some questioning about deficiencies in Captain Renslow's training record and his somewhat spotty resume, Hersman wanted to know what financial and other options Colgan pilots might have when, for example, their crew base was closed and they had to relocate to another, more expensive, area of the country -- for example, the Newark-New York area. She pressed Mitchel, Colgan's flight operations chief, on that.

HERSMAN: "Do you have a locality pay, somewhat like the federal government, where if there's a higher [cost] of living in certain areas, if they're based in a high-cost- of-living area, they might get a higher pay rate or a bonus or an incentive?"

MITCHEL: "On the pilot side it's a straight across-the-board hourly [pay, irrespective of base location]. For management personnel, yes, we look at that equation."

H: "Do you know kind of what the cost of living in the Newark area is -- is it considered high?"

M: "It's on the high scale."

H: "And on $16,000 to $20,000, what would that afford you in Newark?"

M: "I'm not sure about that, m'am, but I do know that Colgan Air provides a fantastic opportunity for our crew members. We have plenty of crew members that have come through Colgan Air to the major airlines, so we look at it as a stepping-stone in a career path. Our pilots generally appreciate the opportunity to fly for Colgan Air..."

H: "Mr. Mitchel, when you talked about a 16-hour duty day, were you familiar with the first officer's schedule the day before the accident?"

M: "Yes, m'am, I am aware."

H: "So she began the day by waking at 9 or 10 in the morning; she started her commute from Seattle that evening; she commuted from Seattle to Memphis, stayed in a crew lounge in Memphis from midnight to 4 a.m., commuted from Memphis to Newark from 4 to 6.30, and then hung out in a crew lounge in Newark until her 1.30 show-time. The accident occurred that evening. That looks like about a 36-hour clock to me. I think at best maybe there was an opportunity -- I'm not sure if she could get it -- but there might have been the opportunity for 7 hours' sleep during that commute. But it sounds pretty horrible to me. It's not something I would want, to try to achieve my sleep on those legs from Seattle to Memphis, in a crew lounge in Memphis, and then from Memphis to Newark. Do you think this violates kind of the spirit of duty time?"

[My note: The reply from Mitchel is a true gem. Here is where Mitchel slurs the dead pilots for their lack of "professionalism," rather than acknowledging that the system might be flawed. His syntax is a bit difficult to follow, but the drift is clear]:

MITCHEL: "I think it violates the professionalism of a crew member. We can't dictate to a crew member what they do on their own time. We hire professionals, and those professionals we expect should show up fresh and ready to fly that aircraft, and we provide the adequate rest for those individuals. There is no difference: If my wife has a baby and I'm up all night with my new-born and I get no sleep -- same situation. If I am fatigued, I shouldn't fly that airplane."

HERSMAN: "Your commuting policy says crew members shouldn't commute on the day that their shift begins, but she [First Officer Shaw] began the commute on the day before her shift began, but she finished her commute on the day the shift began. How do you monitor this policy and how is it enforced?"

M: "Again, it not a firm hard policy. It's guidelines to our crew member. ... We just give those pilots the guidelines to try to make an appropriate professional decision, and giving those guidelines to our pilots is our responsibility. How that individual or those individuals execute their duties and responsibilities on their own time is up to those individuals."

Later, another N.T.S.B. member, Kitty Higgins, zeroed in on the extraordinary percentage of Colgan pilots based at Newark who live far away, and thus need to fly to Newark [hopping free crew-rides on whichever flight they can] to start any new "duty time."

HIGGINS: "A hundred thirty-seven Newark-based pilots are commuting, and if I did the math correctly, 20 percent of those pilots live more than 1,000 miles from the Newark base, and another 14 percent live 400 or more miles. So that's more than a third of the pilots based in Newark ... commuting extensive distances. ... How do you define duty time?"

MITCHEL: "Duty time is specifically outlined in the FAA regulations."

H: "And what does it say?"

M: "Unless it's in front of me, I do not have it memorized."

H: "Does duty time include commuting time?"

M: "No, m'am."

H: "So the fact that the first officer [Shaw] essentially commuted on two flights to get to the crew base ... that doesn't count in terms of duty time?"

M: "That is correct."

H: "Do you think that affects the issue of fatigue? What is the nexus between commuting and fatigue?"

M: "... it's very difficult for me to answer that question unless there was a specific issue [My comment: Isn't the Buffalo crash the specific issue at hand??] ... We expect fatigue- management of our pilots, and we expect those professional pilots to be able to manage fatigue."

H: "... I know I've flown a red-eye, in a real seat, and it's pretty tough. And the first thing I want to do when I fly a red-eye is to find a bed someplace. In fact, she [Shaw] commented to one of the pilots that was flying her that there was a couch in the crew-room that had her name on it. ... The Colgan policy is [pilots] are not supposed to sleep in the crew-room, but it turns out that they are sleeping in the crew-room. ... What are the policies and procedures?"

M -- "One of them is sleeping overnight, because it is not an adequate rest facility, is prohibited for our crew members ... First Officer Shaw went through our pre-training program, she went through our CRM [Crew Rest Management] program. Within our CRM program, we gave that pilot [Shaw] some fatigue-management tools through her training. ... if a pilot was found sleeping in the crew-room, we would discuss it with the pilot about what going on. We are also in complete dialog with our pilots on a crew-scheduling committee to try to adapt and prosper commutable scheduling-legs, to assist in this very challenging environment in Newark."

H: "In the crew-member policy handbook it says, and I'm quoting: 'While commuting by flight crew-members is understood and accepted by the company, in no way will commuting be deemed a mitigating factor in the flight crew-member's scheduling, punctuality and demeanor. Flight crew-members will be fully accountable for their timely arrival and appearance at their base. Any and all expenses incurred because of commuting will be borne by the flight crew-member. Crew-members should not attempt to commute to their base the same day they're scheduled to work.' I don't see anywhere in there where there any mention of the risks of commuting or the effects of commuting, in terms of fatigue ... You've got a policy that acknowledges that pilots are going to commute ... You've got a policy that says that crew-rooms are not to be used as motel rooms, but in fact they were -- in many instances, that's what they were being used for, for people to sleep. We've got a standard of the company that says that safety is our mission, our most-important objective -- but we know from previous accidents that fatigue is a huge factor. ... where does that all come together for someone who says, `Wait a minute: What is going on here?'"

M: "We totally agree, Member Higgins, with your assertation. [cq] Together with our vice president of safety, we're fully engaged on this topic, and i can't say there is a magic wand to correct that procedure. But with our pilot group, with our flight attendant group, and with management at Colgan Air, we're going to do our due diligence to ensure we can mitigate this issue of fatigue as best as possible. I also look at fatigue as part of an element to complacency. And the complacency is a key ingredient in this factor." [I warned you about this guy's syntax!]

Higgins then replied:

H - One of the things I learned since coming here [to the N.T.S.B., investigating aviation accidents] is sometimes the individual does not recognize fatigue. You don't know how tired you really are. Fatigue has been compared to essentially driving drunk. It has the same effect on an individual as alcohol. ... The question is, knowing the consequences of fatigue, what are the policies that are in place, or were in place, to mitigate fatigue? ... When you put together the commuting patterns, the pay levels, the fact that your crew-rooms, which aren't supposed to be used [as motels] are being used [as motels], I think that's a recipe for an accident. And that is what we have here."


NOTE: Here, via the N.T.S.B. Web site, is the full transcript of the cockpit voice recorder during the doomed Colgan flight.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

AirTran Vows to Have All Planes Wi-Fi by Mid-Summer

--Written from on board an AirTran flight from Baltimore Washington International over the East Coast --

AirTran said today it would have all 136 of its 737 and 717 aircraft equipped with the Aircell Gogo Wi-Fi service by mid-summer.

AirTran's announcement, held until this morning, was preempted, it seems to me, by an announcement yesterday afternoon from Delta Air Lines that it had completed installation of the Gogo Wi-Fi system on half of its 300 planes in its mainline domestic fleet, including all of the MD-88s, with the rest of the fleet to be completed by September.

That would seem to set up a kind of race between Delta and AirTran in their respective promises to be the first to have all domestic aircraft equipped with Wi-Fi by the end of summer. Delta, of course, has a fleet that is twice as big.

Aircell is the leader in in-flight Internet. In 2007, American Airlines and Virgin America became the first U.S. airlines to announce they would install Gogo Wi-Fi, but the rollout has been slow through the industry.

Also, bandwidth seems to be limited, at times. On this demo flight, a handful of reporters using Wi Fi had to suddenly power down to enable the Today Show to go live with a feed. Television sucks up all energy! (Actually, the demands of broadcasting live television inflight put an extra strain on bandwidth, they tell me.)

One problem with this otherwise sparsely populated demo flight so far: AirTran planted its own executives and a lobbyist in the coach exit-rows and reserved the front of the cabin for TV. Back here in Row 19F, a cramped non-exit-row seat on a 737, I find it hard to open my laptop screen adequately on the little tray table to see the keyboard, let alone manipulate the mouse. I can't imagine doing it in a middle seat wedged between two other passengers.

If every seat were full, this lack of adequate space would be a real challenge for a standard laptop (though of course not a big problem for notebooks, and no problem at all for those with Smartphones and Blackberrys.

On the other hand, the connection appears to be excellent, including for video streaming.


Half of Delta's Domestic Fleet Now Has Wi-Fi

As AirTran plans a splashy announcement this morning that it will have its entire domestic fleet equipped with Wi-Fi by summer's end, Delta Air Lines said yesterday afgternoon that it has installed Wi-Fi on nearly half of its domestic mainline fleet, "making the airline the world's leading provider of in-flight connectivity."

Of more than 300 airplanes Delta operates on U.S. routes, 139 are equipped with the Gogo Inflight Internet, including the entire MD-88 fleet. In addition, the MD-90 fleet will be complete by the end of May with the remainder of the domestic fleet scheduled for completion by September.

Delta "is well on its way to offering guaranteed Wi-Fi every time our customers fly a mainline flight within the continental United States," said Tim Mapes, Delta's senior vice president for marketing. "We are fully committed to investing in innovative on-board technology that adds value for our customers be it in the form of seat-back satellite TV, on-demand movies or now Wi-Fi."

Delta decided last year to equip its entire domestic fleet with Wi-Fi. The airline later expanded its installation plans to include approximately 200 Northwest airplanes, which are scheduled for completion next year. Then DCelta will have more than 500 aircraft offering Wi-Fi.

In addition to the MD-88s, Wi-Fi is now available on some 757-200s and MD-90s. Service is offered in both First and Economy class on a pay-per-flight basis. The cost of Wi-Fi access on a single Delta flight ranges from $7.95-$12.95. In June, customers also will be able to purchase month-long, unlimited use passes.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Check Your Bag? Gladly!

Just in case you were wondering whether airlines think the cost from aggravation to passengers is made up for by the money raised by slapping fees on checked bags, here is how much the domestic airlines collected in checked-bag fees during the fourth-quarter of 2008: $498.6 million. That's triple the amount they collected in checked bag fees in the fourth quarter of 2007.

This is according to a report today from the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Six of the seven network carriers posted a combined loss of $1.7 billion in the quarter compared with $274 million in the 2007 fourth-quarter. Of the seven, only Alaska Airlines reported an operating profit.

Three low-cost airlines, Allegiant, Spirit and AirTran, had the top profit margins among the total 21 airlines -- network, low-cost and regional -- included in the report. Virgin America, Northwest and United had the largest operating loss margins.


The Morning News ... American Offers One-Way Mileage Award Flights; Priceline Bookings Increase Despite Tough Times

---Starting Monday, American Airlines will allow passengers to use miles to book one-way award flights using half the miles required for a round-trip flight. That's an innovation among major airlines' mileage programs. And the airline also has changed the awards program to combine various awards levels on round-trip tickets and combined coach flights with first-class on round-trip awards. American calls the new program One-Way Flex Awards.

---I'm becoming more of a believer in the blind-bid method -- assuming I know the general market where I am staying, and based on the assumption that chain hotels in various niches (three-star, four-star, five-star) have built consistency so well into their products. I suddenly had to book this morning for a room tonight near BWI. Went to the Priceline "Name Your Own Price" page and got the airport Marriott Courtyard for $75. Published rate on the Marriott Web site: $179.

Priceline seems to be doing ok in the travel turndown, as some other bookers struggle. Priceline today said its first-quarter gross travel bookings by consumers were $1.9 billion, an increase of 10.5% over the 2008 first-quarter. The company's profit for the quarter was $208.3 million, up 15 percent.

The number of hotel-room nights it booked was up 36 percent.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

As FAA SNAFU Drags On, Here's the Full Transportation Department Report on Security Flaws in New ATC Systems

SNAFU is an acronym that often misused to express the idea that something unexpected has gone wrong, as in "We have a SNAFU in the operating room." Actually, SNAFU comes from cynical soldiers, at least as far back as World War II, and the acronym stands for "Situation Normal: All F----- Up." In other words, poorly run business as usual. Grunts more recently came up with a more precise word to describe a system that suddenly goes all wrong: "Cluster f---."

Anyway, both terms apply to the current situation involving the hapless Federal Aviation Administration and our antiquated national air-traffic control system, which has recently been shown to have been vulnerable to cyber-attacks as a gazillion-dollar planned revamp of the current system languishes years behind scheduled completion, the date for which is now 2025.

News accounts late last week cited a new report by the Inspector General's office of the Transportation Department which said, in part, that the air-traffic control system has been hacked into in recent years, and that planned changes as part of the revamp are likely to introduce further openings for even more sophisticated future cyber-attacks, partly because of the dependence on commercial software being built into the new systems, which have already devoured billions and are expected to cost another $40 billion before they are in place.

Here's a link to the full Inspector General's report.

By the way, because of haggling over politics and dough, the FAA -- responsible, remember, for the safety of our air-travel system -- has been operating without an official administrator since September 2007.


Swine Flu Update

Swine flu has now been found in 29 countries, with a total of 4,379 confirmed cases, the World Health Organization said in its latest update today.

While the flu's affects have been relatively mild, deaths are occurring. Mexico has 45 deaths among 1,626 cases; the United States has the most cases, 2,254, with two deaths. Canada has 280 cases and one death and Costa Rica has eight cases and one death. Those are the only countries among th4e 29 where the flu has been found to report deaths from it.

The W.H.O. continues to state that travel restrictions are unnecessary.

Meanwhile, 300 guests and staff of the Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong were released Friday after a seven-day lockdown in the hotel because a Mexican man confirmed as having the swine flu had stayed there.

While some outsiders had derided the quarantine as an overreaction, Hong Kong officials have been extremely cognizant of their experience during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which killed 299 in the city and shut down tourism and much international commerce for months.


Friday, May 08, 2009


The knucklehead at the White House who authorized the idiotic secret April 27 Air Force One flyover of New York City for a "photo op" has "resigned."

Here, via a link from the New York Times online, is a commendably forthright report from the White House on how this egg got scrambled. The report states that its scope was "limited to White House involvement" in that idiotic stunt, which frightened tens of thousands of New Yorkers who looked up that day to see a great big airplane, flanked by Air Force jets, flying extremely low over the city.

Evidently it did not occur to the people who thought this stunt up -- and insisted for some wholly unknown reason that the public not be notified in advance that a great big 747 was going to be flying at 1,000 feet over the city -- that a great many people in New York would have a ... bad reaction, considering what happened the last time they looked up and saw great big airplanes flying low over the skyline.

Now that the White House official, Louis Caldera, has walked the plank, it's time to pick off the others involved: the Air Force colonel in charge of the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews who helped plan it, the nitwit FAA official or officials who evidently were the ones to argue for secrecy and threaten other agencies if they informed the public in advance,and whichever state and local officials had a hand in this.

{In a report today, the CBS affiliate in New York, WCBS TV {{which weirdly has begun referring to itself as CBS 2 HD}}, described the FAA screw-up: "In a memo obtained by CBS 2 HD, the Federal Aviation Administration's James Johnston said the agency was aware of 'the possibility of public concern regarding DOD (Department of Defense) aircraft flying at low altitudes' in and around New York City. But they demanded total secrecy from the N.Y.P.D., the Secret Service, the FBI and even the mayor's office and threatened federal sanctions if the secret got out."]

There was no excuse for this dumb stunt. No one who had a hand in planning it ought to have a government job.

If these chowderheads hadn't insisted on secrecy, they could have flown that passenger-less Air Force One all over the city with advance notice and wowed the citizens who paid for the "photo op." Thousands would have been in the streets to take pictures. It would have been a splendid event, despite the criticism about however much it cost (evidently around $350,0000 total) for this photo-op that could just as easily and way more cheaply been a "Photoshop."

But nooooo. They had to get out the "Secret" stamp. They just love the "Secret" stamp.


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Terror Watch List: Free Jack Anderson! All of Them!

[Above: J. Edgar Hoover, Subversives-Hunter]

[Above: Jack Anderson, Columnist and 'Jackal']

[Above: Jack Anderson, terror suspect, and his Mom, Christine. Photo courtesy of Christine Anderson.]

I've done my best to try to straighten out the FBI terrorist watch list story over the last year. Every time I think it's explained, off we go again into the rat's nest.

Now comes news that the Inspector General's Office of the Justice Department has found fault with the sloppy way the terrorist watch lists are maintained by the F.B.I. Terrorist Screening Center. Here's a link to the news story and, for those of you truly, truly motivated, a link to the full report, in a long .pdf file on the Inspector General Web site.

The news accounts focus mostly on the finding in the report that lapses in the watch list maintenance can allow suspected terrorists to slip into the U.S. because they have not been "nominated" and confirmed to be listed.

But there is also some interesting reading on the various names that appear on the lists that seem to have nothing to do with any international terrorist threat. I give you, again, the case of Jack Anderson -- or I should say, the multiple Jack Andersons who routinely get stopped at airport check-in and delayed for questioning because, it seems, some "version" of their identity appears on the official, secret lists, which are maintained by the F.B.I. in two categories -- Do Not Fly and Selectee.

The truly bad list "Do Not Fly," contains the names and detailed information on fewer than 2,000 actual terrorist suspects. My guess is that none of them are named Jack Anderson, or a close variant of same.

The jam-up for many people with common names (David Nelson is another one) comes with the "Selectee" list, which contains the names and detailed information on people who are suspected of having some terrorist connections, but on whom the evidence is too slight to ban from flying, but sufficient enough, under the guidelines, to have them double-checked at airports. Several thousand people are on this list, along with details about them. This list has been compiled over recent years from about a dozen various, historical government and law-enforcement lists of various people under investigation, supposedly for terrorist connections. Or so those various agencies have claimed.

Again, this makes some sense -- assuming the master lists are well-maintained, which, as the Justice Department report points out, they are not.

The mess gets even more complicated because, for reasonable security reasons, the actual detailed lists maintained by the FBI are not disseminated to the airlines, whose unwanted responsibility it is to do the flagging at the gate. Instead, the airlines get bare-bones lists of names and variants of names, and (because of privacy concerns long argued by groups like the ACLU) no other personal information to help them match a passenger against a suspect. The airlines hate this responsibility, which leads to many "false positives" among their passengers, and I don't blame them.

The Homeland Security Department is making a major fix to this system with a program, now being rolled out, called Secure Flight. Once it is fully in place by next year, airline passengers will have to provide enough personal information in advance of flying to allow the TSA (and not the airlines) to compare those names and identities with much more precision against the names and other information on the actual secret watch-lists.

Before he departed as the director of the TSA late last year, Kip Hawley explained the dilemma the airlines face, though he was also critical of what he regarded as the airlines' lackadaisical approach to the problem of false positives, meaning the airlines routinely flagging people who really are not on the selectee list.

"The problem is all those people who think they’re on a watch list in fact are flying on airlines that don’t do a very good job of sorting out who is actually on the real watch-lists and whose name might be similar to someone on the No Fly or Selectee watch lists," Hawley said.

"Let’s suppose a real person named Mohammed Mohammed Mohammed is on the [real] Selectee list. Well, if your name is Mohammed Mohammed Smith or Joe Mohammed Mohammed Mohammed, or Mohammed Bob Mohammed -- depending on how the airline filters its list -- you may end up with hundreds of other people with names like that getting flagged every time they fly, by an airline saying that you can’t get your boarding pass, you’re on the list, please come over to the ticket counter and prove to us who you are. A lot of those people think the government has them on a watch list because they always have to go over to the ticket counter and answer questions before they can fly. So all those people are going away mad, thinking, what’s the TSA got against me?"

The airlines have argued that they were handed an impossible and expensive logistical problem that forces them to error, when they do, on the side of great caution.

Anyway, Secure Flight will go a long way toward fixing that problem, though at some cost to personal privacy (the government will now know more in advance about every air traveler's plans). Being able to match you, the innocent traveler, against the actual person on the terrorist list who shares nothing with you except some possible vague variant of name or alias, will solve a problem for lots of fliers with common names who routinely get needlessly flagged, despite their repeated attempts to get their names off the list.

Take Jack Anderson, age 7 when he got the third-degree last year when flying with his mother, Christine, his two brothers and their grandmother on a trip to Disney World. The family thought they would miss their flight till airline security finally cleared Jack about an hour after he was detained.

Christine Anderson did a good job making her case publicly that young Jack, who was first flagged at age 2, is obviously not a terrorist, or someone with known terrorist connections. Under Secure Flight, young Jack will immediately come up as a child whose particulars do not match those of the actual Jack Anderson on the watch list.


But wait a minute: Why is there a "Jack Anderson" on the watch-list in the first place?

I can only guess here, but I'd say the Selectee list probably contains the name and particulars of Jack Anderson, the muckraking columnist who was on the Nixon White House enemies' list and who was relentlessly investigated by the FBI under the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, who in fact referred to Anderson as a "jackal" for unearthing various unpleasantries and scandals involving the agency during the unfortunate (and seemingly interminable) Hoover era.

In its recent audit of the Terrorist Watch Lists, the Justice Department Inspector General's office reported that over one third of the names and identities on the lists "were associated with FBI cases that did not contain current international terrorism or domestic terrorist cases ..." The report continued, "Rather, many of these watch-listed records were associated with outdated terrorism-case classifications or case-classifications unrelated to terrorism, and had been nominated [to the list] by various FBI field offices and headquarters units."

Hmmm, could it be that Hoover's and Nixon's files on Jack Anderson, respected journalist and patriotic American, still linger in the data-banks that make up the Terrorist Watch Lists rat's nest?

One of Jack Anderson's sons, Kevin, a Salt Lake City lawyer, certainly thinks so. When I first wrote about the seven-year-old Jack Anderson last summer, Kevin Anderson e-mailed me with this question about the list:

"How come it includes my Dad, a respected journalist, and anyone with the same name, including some little kid? And with all their resources, how come the FBI doesn’t know that they’re looking for a dead man?"

Jack Anderson the columnist died in 2005.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Business Aviation in Free-Fall

Clobbered by the economy and by extremely poor public perceptions that began when those three Detroit CEOs swanned into Washington on their corporate jets demanding taxpayer bailouts last November, the business aviation industry has now had a frightening look at how badly things can go wrong, and how quickly.

Deliveries of general aviation airplanes fell 41.1 percent, to 462 planes, in the first quarter (compared with the 2008 first quarter), says the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Industry billings fell 18.2 percent to $4.34 billion.

This from the trade group's chief executive, Pete Bunce:

"We are dealing first and foremost with the severe negative effects of a worldwide economic downturn, but also with unwarranted criticism focused on the industry. The result has been the cancellation of orders for new airplanes and the loss of more than 15,000 high-paying jobs for American workers over the last several months. The reality is that the U.S. general aviation industry leads the world in innovation and remains one of the few American industries with a positive balance of trade."

We're not just talking about business jets here. Deliveries of piston airplanes fell was down 55.1 percent in the first quarter. Turboprops -- increasingly popular as trade-downs by corporate flight departments who are afraid of public perceptions with jets, actually grew slightly, with deliveries up 3.4 percent.

Business jet deliveries fell 35.7 percent, to 191 airplanes compared to 297 business jets in the first quarter of 2008.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Teleconferencing With Parrots

People seem skeptical when I tell them my wife and I use Skype to teleconference with our parrots when either of us is away.

Well .... These are Skype screen shots off my computer at our home in Tucson, where I have been for a month, working on a book. My wife and our blue-and-gold macaw, Petey, and our African Grey, Rosie, were at our home in New Jersey.

And parrots are amazingly technologically savvy. They get it immediately, and talk back. Except the little grey one seems to think I am actually inside my wife's laptop, and keeps marching behind it to look.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Travelers, Airlines: You're Doing It Right With This Flu Alarm. So Let's Not Have a Cow When the WHO Goes All Defcon 1

The reaction to the swine-flu outbreak, especially among travelers and airlines, has mostly been marked by common sense, by an appreciation of scientific reason, by prudence, and in the case of some corporations and airlines, by a reasonable and totally justifiable appreciation of various legalities and potential liabilities.

Reliable, up-to-date information is readily accessible online to anyone who wants it -- and by all indications, most travelers have found their various ways to stay reliably informed.

We all have to look at the usual easily-frightened cable-TV-news hysterics, and the tiny minority of easily-alarmed print local news outlets.

(Eeeeek! A transatlantic plane from Germany got diverted to Boston instead of Washington because some lady wasn't feeling good!}

The good cultural news: We're all not about to have a cow if the World Health Organization (WHO) raises the official "pandemic" level to Level 6, as is now anticipated by some reasonable political authorities, including the sensible U.S. Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano.

If, as anticipated, WHO pulls the trigger on declaring Level Six, please do not flash back on those war-room scenes in "Dr. Strangelove." Of course, some media hysterics will unwittingly do just that, and miss the irony of George C. Scott as U.S. Air Force General "Buck" Turgidson.

Here, again, is the exact WHO language, so you can evaluate it on your own, just in case some media nitwit gets it all wrong, and whaddya think the chances of that might be?

To my fellow travelers, I say: My God, you men and women have seen it all over many years; you have have evaluated it; and again you have simply refused to panic. You have evaluated the situation, and you have plunged on.

Well done, as they say in the United States Navy when they really, really mean it.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Hype Continues Relentless March Through Hub ...

Boston has always struck me as a hysteria-prone city in its odd misconception of itself as being the center of some alternate universe. It's only fairly recently that the local media stopped using the word "Hub" (as in hub of the universe) as a synonym for "Boston."

I'm serious. A headline in a parody newspaper once said:

2 Hub Men Die in Blast;
New York Also Destroyed

Boston being the hub of the universe, or at least solar system, was an idea that came from Oliver Weldell Holmes, and evidently he meant it sarcastically, according to the Boston Weblog Universal Hub.

Anyway, as the rest of the actual universe continues to mostly chill and keep things in perspective after the scattered outbreaks of swine-flu hysteria, the Boston Herald newspaper offers up this bizarre lede on its flu story today:

"Swine flu continued its relentless march through the Bay State yesterday as four new confirmed cases and nearly a dozen suspected cases emerged yesterday, in addition to a 9-year-old boy who was hospitalized after contracting the deadly virus.

"From airlines to universities, drastic steps were carried out yesterday in an effort to control the spread of the new influenza that has sickened 141 people nationally in 19 states. A United Airlines flight from Munich to Washington, D.C., was diverted to Logan International Airport after a passenger complained of “flulike symptoms” and was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for treatment, officials said."

Uh, hello: Everybody in the actual universe is laughing about the drastic overreaction in diverting that flight to Boston yesterday because some woman on board said she didn't feel well. Turned out she ... just didn't feel well. But was she one of the "nearly a dozen suspected cases" that "emerged yesterday," creating such alarm for the easily alarmed Boston Herald?

Over at the Boston Globe, a reader commenting on its story about the diverted aircraft claimed he had been on it. He wrote:

"I was on that plane. I got a nice yellow handout that told me, 'You may have been exposed to SWINE FLU during your travels' It even has a checklist of symptoms and a chart for me to keep track of my temperature 2 times each day for the next 7 days. It also says, 'If you do not get sick after 7 days [then] you may go to work or school and continue your normal activities.' Sounds like I get the week off."


Friday, May 01, 2009

Hong Kong Hotel: You Can Check In, But You Can't Check Out

First an update on that ridiculous diversion today of a United flight bound from Germany to Washington. A passenger said she didn't feel well, and the pilot decided to head not for Washington but for Boston, where of course a media circus ensued as the plane full of passengers was treated as if it was full of anthrax.

Media circus tents have folded up now that it appears the lady who wasn't feeling so hot turns out to have been, well, just not feeling so hot.

Meanwhile, a hotel in Hong Kong is not allowing its guests to check out after one guest was diagnosed with the flu -- although in this case, it's important to note that the authorities said the man was a certified case of the swine flu.

The quarantined hotel is the Metro Park Hotel in the Wanchai district, linked to here, and having to stay there for a while sure beats having to stay at, say, the Hotel Carter on Times Square.

Plus, Hong Kong has been here before, during the SARS virus outbreak in 2002-2003 that killed 299 people there. The SARS outbreak in Hong Kong was traced to an infection that spread from a hotel.

I was in Hong Kong a few weeks after that situation settled down in 2003, and the sense of fear in the city was palpable. On the other hand, you could get a harbor-view suite at the Peninsula Hotel for about $19 a night. Always look on the bright side of life, ta-da.


Lady Doesn't Feel Well On Airplane, Overreaction Ensues

Well, I might have to reassess the previous post on how prudent everyone has been in traveling during a flu alert.

Some woman on a United flight from Germany to Washington complained of "flu symptoms," according to news accounts . Pilot decides to divert plane to Boston, where overreaction continues. Let's hope this isn't a trend.

{Update:} I liked some of the reader comments to the story linked to above on the Web site (where readers comments also pointed out the obvious error in the news account that said the plane was a 737):

Comments from readers of that Boston Globe story:

---"This has to be the most stupid panic driven move that an airline can make. Flight time from Munich to Boston is 8 hours and 25 minutes. From Munich to Dulles it is 9 hours and 5 minutes. Why would 40 minutes less exposure to influenza make any difference after an already lengthy transatlantic flight. What a ridiculous inconvenience to the passengers and a huge expense for United. ..."

---"Maybe she was just hung over."

---"Come on, enough of the hysteria. Diverting a plane for one person complaining of flu symptoms? Maybe she just felt bad after eating an airline meal. Seriously, enough of the fear-mongering. Stop!"


War Reporting ...

War is the oldest and most awful form of business travel, when you think of it. Anyway, daily combat reporting just doesn't get any better than this. Chivers, by the way, is a former Marine infantryman.


Travelers React Prudently to Flu Alerts

Except for a school district that overreacted and shut down for a week in Fort Worth, Texas; a few hysterics wearing surgical masks in cities where there's no flu; and of course the Egyptian authorities who ordered all pigs killed, people have reacted prudently and calmly to the swine flu alerts.

Travelers, who tend to be well-informed and prudent to start with, are exercising great common sense, it seems.

[UPDATE: Except, on occasion, silliness like this.]

Saber Holdings, the big travel distributor, says today that aside from a decline in travel to Mexico, business and leisure travel within the United States and to other parts of the world is currently holding steady, "reflecting the same pragmatic perspective among travelers that President Barack Obama offered in his news conference on Wednesday," Saber said.

"The vast majority of our clients remain on the road," said Jane Batio, president of CorpTrav, a Chicago-based travel management company with more than $180 million in annual air bookings. "We've only canceled six trips across our entire client base in the past week, and future bookings remain in sync with rebounding trends we've seen across the past two months."

Sam Gilliland, chief executive officer of Sabre Holdings, said: “Travelers are still making rational travel decisions based on facts rather than hype. It’s critically important that travelers continue to refer to and follow advisories issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as their primary sources of information, and that the news media emphasize the advice of these organizations as well."

So the reaction has been reasonable, it seems to me, as people stay informed, mostly through solid, public-access friendly work by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, whose Web sites have been admirably managed.

Vice President Joe Biden blundered when he said he'd advise his family to temporarily avoid confined crowded spaces like those in airplanes because people might be ill, but to be fair, he only made that statement after answering a series of inane, alarmist questions from a TV reporter. It's well known that Biden's advisers wish he would adopt the three-sentence rule in response to tricky questions. When Joe gets into semantic trouble, it usually starts with the fourth sentence.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) notes that the World Health Organization has refrained suggesting that people avoid air travel, unless those people are ill to start with.

"WHO advises there should be no restriction of regular travel or closure of borders. It is considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following international travel to seek medical attention, in line with guidance from national authorities," says Giovanni Basignani, IATA director. "WHO is the global expert. WHO is not advising any travel restrictions. We hope that governments take decisions and coordinate their actions in line with WHO recommendations," he said.

As noted, travel in and from Mexico has definitely been affected.

Continental Airlines today temporarily reduced service to Mexico. Among U.S. airlines, Continental has the most number of flights to Mexico. Continental is cutting about half of its capacity to Mexico, effective Monday.

And Lufthansa also plans to cut flights and drop routes amid the crisis, and said it would place doctors on its planes to Mexico in hopes of detecting any flu infections early.

[My comment: Not sure what having a physician on board buys you. If you got the flu, he or she ain't going to miraculously cure you back there in Seat 28C. It seems to me that a well-trained flight attendant is your answer, and you have those, Lufthansa. But hey, go for it. Can't hurt, and the docs will probably enjoy the free trips.]

Several cruise lines have also temporarily stopped port calls in Mexico, among them Carnival and Royal Caribbean.